The mobile Web: The future of TV remote control

April 24, 2009

Hands up, anybody who has ever controlled their TV, DVR, game console, DVD player, or other fancy video gadget using the Web rather than a maze of slow clicks on an old infrared remote control.

Anybody? Congratulations, both of you.

I’ve been playing with Verizon’s newly updated Web-based remote control feature to do exactly that and I’m telling you, it’s sweet. Sorry that most of you aren’t FiOS TV subscribers so you won’t be able to try it, but for the few who are, give it a trial run.

You have to have an HD DVR and you have to sign up first, but within 24 hours they’ll get you up and running. You can then log in and control your DVR from your PC. If you’ve ever fallen asleep waiting for your DVR to respond to your remote control as you wade through a labyrinth of menu options, you’ll appreciate the speed and efficiency of this solution. 

verizon-webdvr

Here you see me deleting yet another episode of Bob the Builder, all in the name of research.

Controlling complex TV equipment from the PC is a no-brainer — the next step will be to port all of that control to the mobile phone.

To wit, I’ve been playing with the iPhone app that controls the Boxee player (which as faithful readers will know I have placed on my hacked Apple TV with much rejoicing).  Boxee is relatively simple to control with the Apple TV remote (though I  my kids keep losing the tiny thing) so it’s not like you need to turn to the iPhone app, but why not? Once you start getting the hang of controlling things from a more intuitive interface (the PC with a mouse, the iPhone with its touch surface), it makes you realize that the future of living room control is not to have a $500 Logitech universal remote or even to put a touch screen on your TV set. It’s much simpler than that — we’ll all just use our mobile phones to control our TVs, DVRs, game consoles, and everything else CE makers conspire to place in our living rooms. And that control can be live, as in, here’s what I want to watch right now, or offline, as in, let’s delete all of those Palladia concerts I recorded in HD while I was convalescing that now consume half the DVR hard drive (sorry, Neal Peart and the rest of the Rush gang).

Once we have a protocol for letting mobile devices speak to the TV, they won’t be limited to simple command and control functions. Here are a few scenarios that I can easily conjure:

  1. Want to play Uno on the TV? Okay, you might prefer harder fare when you think of card games. Either way, we can’t play card games at our house until the little ones are in bed because they gnash and tear at the cards. In fact, we can’t play card games at our house after they go to bed because of aforementioned history of gnashing and tearing has depleted our card reserves. But in a mobile-controlled TV world, bent cards are a thing of the past. Imagine if each player could employ their own mobile phone as their hand. The TV can keep the draw pile, the tableau, or whatever else the game requires.
  2. Let me share my photos with you. Today people share pictures and video taken on their mobiles by gathering around the 3-inch screen or posting them on Facebook. But nothing’s more immediate than “publishing” my photos directly to your Connected TV or cable set top box when I drop by for a visit, either over wi-fi or the 3G network. And if I can share photos with your TV from my iPhone, why can’t I also “publish” my mp3 playlist to your surround sound speakers?
  3. Need a keyboard, anyone? As more and more of your friends get Connected TVs and are joining chat rooms to swap ideas about the latest episode of Fringe while it’s airing live, you’ll be the one who doesn’t have to use a cumbersome USB keyboard to add your $.02 to the chat. With an iPhone or Android app that speaks to your Connected TV, you’ll be good to go — whether to enter a username and password or for constructing lengthy analyses of Agent Dunham’s wardrobe.    

Your turn, I’m sure you have better ideas of what such a mobile-controlled TV world could be like. Add your comments and let’s see what rises to the top.


Apple TV vs. Roku vs. SlingBox

April 16, 2009

NOTE: This post is nearly four years old but continues to get traffic, enjoy the read, though I shut down comments years ago because of spam, sorry. In the meantime, please check out my book, Digital Disruption, published Feb 2013 at forr.com/DDbook.

Original post:

This is now the third post I’ve written where I’ve confessed that some unscheduled downtime for health reasons proved to be a marvelous excuse to lay on the couch and watch a lot of TV shows and movies. In my case, I can also claim it’s research because I have to try out all the gadgets in my video setup, which keep changing thanks to upgrades. So in my most recent (and hopefully final) hiatus, I spent some quality time with the Apple TV (hacked to include Boxee), the Roku (recently enhanced with Amazon Unbox capability), and the SlingBox + SlingCatcher combination. Some thoughts:

  • Apple TV still doesn’t float my boat. I did an extensive post on this some weeks back lamenting the fact that this box doesn’t do more than it does because despite repeated attempts to give it a break, I still only find it handy for two things: 1) watching movie previews (which I’m a sucker for, especially anticipating the summer releases), and 2) watching Hulu thanks to Boxee. Now that Boxee has added Pandora streaming — brilliant move, guys — it’s even that much more interesting to me. I personally believe this “hobby” — as Jobs and others at Apple keep calling this product — is headed for the trash pile unless it finds a way to stream ad-supported video and then builds an iPhone-like app store to allow 3rd party development for the box.
  • Roku + Unbox doesn’t do much for me. I’ve written extensively about Roku’s sucker punch, its $99 Netflix box that is so easy to use that it is flying off of Roku’s shelves. And I was genuinely interested in the Amazon Unbox upgrade that happened a few weeks back because I wanted to see how well it was integrated into the experience. The integration is smooth and elegant. However, I found myself questioning the value of the addition. At my fingertips I have 3 ways to get movies on demand: my cable system, Apple TV, and my Roku + Amazon. And they all have similar problems — it’s hard to navigate that many movies effectively unless you’re looking for an obvious choice like the Dark Knight. Though I will admit I used the Roku the most of the three boxes, 99% of it was spent trawling through our queue of 150 Netflix Watch Instantly titles. The fruit: I strongly recommend The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a haunting and poignant true tale of a man who suffered a massive stroke that left him with only the use of one eye. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest Netflix Watch Instantly option. While there, do everything you can to avoid Sphere, yet another Sharon Stone movie you don’t need to see.
  • SlingBox + SlingCatcher. The SlingCatcher is a loaner from the people at Sling. I’ve used a demo before and was fully aware of its features, but there is something to be said for having it in your home for an extended visit. Here’s what I learned: 1) the people at Sling can do more with video quality over limited bandwidth than anyone I’ve dealt with. I’ve always been impressed with the SlingPlayer’s ability to give me great quality video over wireless connections at home or on the road. But the SlingCatcher has to do one more thing, it has to be able to sling portions of your computer screen to the SlingCatcher. I fully expected the quality of this experience to be subpar. Uh-huh. It’s remarkable. Take a standard size Hulu window, tell your SlingCatcher you want to sling the video to your TV screen and boom, in a few seconds you’re watching full-screen web video from your computer on your TV with no wires attached. Genius. It’s also relatively impractical, however, so as much as I was thrilled to do it, I haven’t done it spontaneously.

By spontaneous, I mean, when I say to myself, “Hmm, I want to watch some video,” the three responses my brain offers are: the PC, the DVR, and the Roku Box, in that order (the DVR follows the PC because with six children, the competition for the DVR is pretty intense). The others don’t come into it unless I’m trying to test something or my first three options are occupied. Lately, I’ve started supplementing that list with some DVR cheating via SlingBox (no need for SlingCatcher), where I can use my PC to snoop in on the DVR while the kids play the Wii or watch a Blues Clues DVD.

I pay close attention to that spontaneous response because it’s the beginning of a habit that will eventually form.

My habits will form differently than yours (you probably don’t have six wonderful children to shape your environment as I do), so it’s not important what my habits are or even what yours are, but what they are in aggregate. To that end, I will keep surveying our fellow citizens to see what habits are emerging. In the meantime, what early habits and preferences are emerging in your life?


DVRs threaten the 10pm primetime hour

April 16, 2009
Note: Sorry that posts have been so sparse the past two months. In the few posts I’ve offered during this time you’ll see I keep saying I’ve just gotten over a sickness and will be back to work on the blog. Alas, my never-ending cold turned out to be double-pneumonia so I dropped out for a few weeks to kill it once and for all. I really am back this time! I will do a few posts to catch up on things that happened while I was out, starting with this one.

Last week TiVo shared an analysis of its Stop||Watch ratings service that reveals a likely long-term impact of DVR use. They found that when people have a DVR, the majority of the primetime viewing they do is timeshifted in some way, whether started late to skip commercials or recorded for later viewing. No surprise there. But here’s the interesting tidbit: because people still want to watch the 11pm news in time to go to bed, if someone doesn’t start watching the 8pm and 9pm shows until 9pm, it means the 10pm show is just dumb out of luck. Even if it gets recorded, it is less likely to actually be viewed. 

Is the 10pm hour dead? (Note for Central and Mountain time people, for you, we’re talking about the 9pm hour. In fact, given that C/M shows run on an hour-earlier schedule, one wonders if this same effect is as true in those time zones. Since the urge to go to bed presumably doesn’t strike an hour earlier, maybe these people are more comfortable watching the 9pm show at 10pm in time to catch the evening news at 10:45, still making it to bed shortly after 11pm.)

The most disturbing thing about this whole analysis is it suggests that NBC Universal head Zucker has a crystal ball.

He’s the guy who cut the budget for 10pm programming as well as authorized increased reality programming (say, Deal or No Deal) which is cheaper to produce than ER, which recently had its farewell episode after an amazingly long but dwindling run. He’s also the force behind The Jay Leno Show, the 10pm primetime talkshow that hopes to cheaply fill the slot that — according to TiVo — fewer and fewer people will be watching. So is the Leno effort just a way to cut costs or is it also strategic? This is the hard part to swallow. Gulp. It may actually be a smart move. Yeah, it probably won’t be a ratings killer every night. That’s why NBC is happy it will be cheap to produce. However, once in a while, say, when a ship captain who was held hostage by Somali pirates is booked, the show will become current events, the kind of thing people will want to watch live, joining the few things in the pantheon of TV that are true DVR-busters like sports and news. 

It may turn out that the 10pm hour will become the new Today Show — a cheap way to fill time that periodically strikes it big. And that’s just the first long-term trend in TV that the DVR will force. A bigger question is hanging out there in the balance that remains to be answered, namely, in the future, how will we know which shows we should watch?

Sounds like a silly question, but I’m serious: today you rely on the networks to do all the filtering for you. If the idea is a good one, they’ll invest heavily in it, attract the right talent, promote it heavily, and schedule it in a winning spot. You probably don’t consciously think through all of that, but they certainly do. And we are the beneficiaries of all that sweat and effort. But in a world where we watch hours of TV shows on our PCs and can DVR all of the content coming off the air, how relevant is programming and scheduling? In an all on-demand world, there’s no scheduling at all, leaving you no way to know which shows are worth your time.

What do you think? How will the market signal to us which shows are hot and which are not?

One obvious answer is word of mouth, but what will that look like? One additional trend that will increase under these conditions: the rise of star producers like J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon. In the old days, you didn’t need to know that Aaron Spelling created your favorite TV shows. That was clout Spelling used behind the scenes. But in the future, more producers will have to take their pitch directly to their fans in the audience, something Whedon has already said he wants to do, as soon as he can figure out a way to fund it.

We’re just at the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way we not only watch TV, but how we decide what we should watch in the first place. Your suggestions on how this will evolve are more than welcome.


Sick day with my Boxee-enabled AppleTV

February 12, 2009

Sorry for the radio silence on my blog. I’ve been down for a few days with the same thing everyone else seems to have. But since I’m a workaholic I had to get some value out of my sick time so I spent as many hours as I could watching TV, movies, and miscellaneous video. All in the name of research, of course.

A few things I learned:

  1. The Roku Player’s HD quality is surprisingly good. The upgrade happened earlier this year. Yes, I have hit a few buffering issues as many predicted would be the case — even though I’m on fiber and wired ethernet. But the quality is still sharp and the selection, thanks to Netflix, is expanding dramatically. My wife is getting her Jane Austen fix, my kids are watching all the kids shows they want, and I’m catching everything from PBS documentaries to Clash of the Titans (what kid rasied in that era doesn’t want to see Clash of the Titans again). Not all of that content is available in HD, but we don’t seem to care.
  2. HD DVRs are a pain. I don’t even record The Office and 30 Rock in HD anymore because it takes up way too much space and those aren’t shows that need HD quality to be funny. Lost, Heroes, and Fringe are all still on my HD list, of course. Even nerds have their standards. 
  3. My Boxee-hacked AppleTV seriously rocks. I mean seriously. With Hulu in there, I did a ton of catching up, including things that were already recorded on my DVR, but with faster access to them on the AppleTV I found it more convenient (if you know me, you know convenience is my watchword) to watch via Boxee. I also started really playing with the personal media sharing that Boxee enables from the home network. It’s as clumsy as most other home-media sharing solutions, but I can see it getting better. Now if Boxee only had a business model. But it is now available in Alpha for Windows, so we’ll see how far it can go before it needs some revenue.

Most of all, I have learned that if I needed to buy a second of any these devices, I would buy the Roku. It’s a bit of an act of faith, on the assumption that more content is coming (a separate post on that coming later). But the price is right and we spend hours watching it. Having a second one for the other TV room makes sense. It’s cheaper than the premium you’d pay to build Netflix into an LG or Vizio TV, and it’s more flexible. But I get ahead of myself, I’ll post on that as a separate topic later today.


Sezmi opens the door to a new kind of set top box

January 9, 2009

I have written a lot over the past two years about the future of the set top box, both on the cable and satellite side as well as on the consumer retail side. On the consumer retail side, there are boxes that are designed to simulate the cable DVR experience like those sold by TiVo (and as announced at CES this week, by Digeo). And there are those designed to provide over-the-top video experiences like the Roku Netflix player, the Apple TV, and the like. 

Though TiVo has tried to provide the best of both worlds — its DVRs can play a wide variety of over-the-top content from online streams to Amazon Unbox video on demand — because it requires a cable subscription, it ends up feeling like a more expensive version of cable.

So far, no one has seriously offered a DVR that doesn’t require cable or satellite service, even though 60% of what people watch is offered for free, over the air, via antenna. And in most major markets, it’s broadcast in HD.

Let’s do some thinking: imagine a DVR that pulls down CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX and PBS from the air, in HD quality, so you have continuous access to the vast majority of content you are interested in. You pay no subscription for this content. And because you’re one of the 62% of US households with broadband, you also have access to millions of online video experiences, some of which are free and others — like Blockbuster OnDemand and Amazon UnBox — are pay-per view experiences that are at least as good as what cable offers, with the extra advantage that they can be managed with a PC.

This DVR could be sold at retail for a few hundred bucks. It would carry no subscription fees and for at least 20% of the population, it could replace cable. Only the people who have to have Showtime and HBO would be left out in the cold, as long as ESPN, Discovery, and CNN keep putting so much of their content online.

Welcome to the world of Sezmi (as in “open Sezmi” — cute, eh?): an over-the-air DVR that adds online video. And if my estimations are correct, you’ll be seeing Sezmi sold by major retailers later this year.

sezmiThink about it — for those of us who spend $100 a month on cable, wouldn’t Sezmi’s value proposition be a great relief? That’s what Sezmi is banking on and the retail partners it’s in hushed conversations with here at CES. I sat down with Sezmi yesterday in their private suite at the Venetian (much nicer than my discount room at the Sahara, I’ll confess). This is a company I’ve been following since they were just a rumor in mid-2007 and were called Building B. They re-branded as Sezmi in 2008 and I last met them at NAB last year where they talked about offering their set top box to tier 2 telcos as a way to compete with cable without having to lay miles of fiber. At the time, I told them that the telco solution was nice, but that I thought they stood a chance of offering this box at retail and that 20% of the population would be interested. That’s 22 million households. That’s more people than have an iPhone. In other words, it’s a target worth pursuing.

Imagine how pleased I was yesterday to hear that they are pursuing both avenues aggressively — working with telcos as well as going straight to retail. I have no doubt we’ll see the boxes in retail later this year. And I’ll be one of the first customers in line. In my case, I won’t be replacing cable, I’ll be adding TV to another room of the house that currently doesn’t have it. That’s a use case I haven’t even modeled and would potentially open a much bigger target audience. Even those economics are attractive, because the additional DVR in my spare room would run me $14 a month — more than $150 a year. One Sezmi box, even if it were priced at $300 would pay for itself after two years of use.

This is Sezmi’s potential even without considering the very elegant consumer interface their box offers or the potential solution they have to solve the ESPN, Discovery, even Showtime problem over time.

Too bad Sezmi wasn’t in retail for this past holiday season. In the words of one retailer who is in talks with Sezmi: “If we had this thing in stores last October as the recession hit, we would probably have 5% market share right now.”

Agreed.


Interview with a TV addict

December 4, 2008

I’ve been posting about TV addiction lately and in my efforts to find people who are addicted to TV, I came across such a unique example that I had to dedicate an entire post to her story. Her name is Xochitl Garza, though her blog readers know her as Equis Buffy. Her daily posts about TV can be found at her blog, You Have No Messages: The Story of My Life. How I found Xochitl (Aztec for “flower,” her name is pronounced So-cheel) is its own story, but suffice it to say that this is one addict who is clearly not in denial. In a recent interview, she answered some of my questions about what it’s like to be an addict:

How many hours of video do you think you watch in a typical week? I usually watch about 30 hours of primetime TV. I have three daytime programs (“Martha”, “Oprah”, and “ General Hospital ”) that air 5 times a week but I do not necessarily watch each episode. So on top of the 30 hours of primetime I probably have an additional 10 hours of daytime TV that I watch.

How do you break down that viewing: live, DVR, online, anything else? I would say at least 95% of that viewing is DVR. I rarely watch live TV anymore but there are times when it can’t be avoided. Like when I’m home sick or on the weekends if there is really nothing else to do.

How important is it to you to share your watching with others? There are some programs that I watch that I never find myself discussing with others like “Samantha Who” or “The Mentalist”. These are the types of shows that any viewer can start watching mid season and never feel like they are missing any crucial portions of the plot. Then there are other programs such as “Heroes” or “Lost”. As soon as the credits roll I am bursting at the seams with anticipation. I can’t wait to discuss all the twists and turns, the questions that have been answered and the new theories the episode has spawned.

How important is that impulse to share in your choice to blog about your shows? I decided to start blogging about TV this past summer. When I noticed how many emails I was sending each week to my family, friends, and co-workers on the subject of TV. Everything from a weekly recap of specific shows to which programs may or may not have been canceled. I figured instead of generating a distribution list for all the fans of “Gossip Girl” and a separate one for “30 Rock” I might as well put all this information in one place.

What’s the best way to tell whether someone is addicted to TV? I would say the same way you would gauge any other addict. If it starts to interfere with other aspects of your life then it has become a full fledged addiction. If you find yourself spending the first hour of your workday online trying to get spoilers for next week’s episode of “Fringe”. Or if you’re skipping your niece’s birthday party because you want to watch the season finale of “Grey’s Anatomy” live then you are an addict.

Is it necessarily bad to be addicted to TV? The name of my blog is You Have No Messages. I always use to tell one of my sisters that if I ever wrote a book it would be called You Have No Messages: The story of my life. The same sister thinks that the vast amount of time I spend watching TV might be the reason for the lack of voicemail I receive. I think it has more to do with getting older and priorities shifting. Instead of going out every other weeknight and every weekend I like to spend more time at home these days. The more time I spent at home the more I learned to enjoy TV. TV has not completely annihilated my social life. All of my friends will tell you that not only am I a walking TV Guide but that I also throw the best parties this side of the Mississippi. I feel my life is well balanced. If TV consumes all of your life then I would say it is a bad thing.

What would someone have to pay you for you to watch no TV/video for a whole week? How much more would they have to pay you to get you to promise not to go back after the week is over and catch up on your shows via DVR or online?  I’ve thought long and hard about this one. There are a few different variables I have taken into consideration when determining my answer. If the week is during November or February (two out of three sweeps months) the amount would be $5,000. If the week takes place any other time with the exception of May, the amount would be lower, $1,000. It would take an additional $1,000 in both situations in order for me to not be able to go back and catch up. As for the month of May I’m going to have to say now way no how. Not with the possibility of missing an excellent season finale. I thought back on episodes that I could have possibly missed in years past such as  The Gift from “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” The Telling from “Alias,” Everyone’s Waiting from “Six Feet Under,” or Leave It to Beaver from “Veronica Mars.” I would have never forgiven myself if I had only had a verbal recap of any of these episodes instead of getting to witness them myself. Who am I kidding for a cool million I would practically do anything.  

There are many gems in Xochitl’s story. One of the most telling tidbits is that she knows the names of the episodes she’s referring to. At a more intriguing level, what she says about balancing life and TV is particularly important. Contrary to the image of the couch potato sitting for hours on end in front of a flickering screen, today’s TV addict is an engaged, socially connected viewer who wants to talk about TV with others and engage them in the conversation. Xochitl is an example of a more empowered addict, a viewer who can veg with the best, yet hang with her peeps at the best parties “this side of the Mississippi.” One tool that helps her do this is the DVR, but the Web also plays a role in not only the viewing but in building the conversation. This may be one addiction that gets healthier as technology improves it.

Does Xochitl’s story resonate with yours? 


As Netflix rises, Roku drafts nicely behind

November 3, 2008

Every time I turn around, it seems Netflix is announcing something new. These past few weeks my little fingers have typed furiously to keep up with Netflix, which I will now refer as the company formerly known as the DVD-by-mail company. Two weeks ago, I wrote about Samsung adding Netflix to some of its Blu-ray players. Then there was the announcement that Netflix had finally enabled streaming on the Mac (okay, okay, Intel-based Macs, but still). Then there was the revelation that said company would provide HD streaming on the Xbox 360 and other devices. Finally, I posted just last Thursday that Netflix was partnering with TiVo to expand its streaming to yet another device. (Convenience note: you can mouseover these links to see the text of the page without actually clicking on them)

Just remembering typing it all inflames my carpal tunnel. Now that I’ve had some time to think this through, I’m still impressed with Netflix. But wait a minute. In all this, there’s one definite winner behind all the announcements: Roku.

btw, this is not an ad, this is just the most attractive picture I found on the website: I don't get paid anything if you click on this and order

Yes, I’m talking about the maker of the $99 streaming video box that in my back-of-the-envelope estimations has probably sold more than 50,000 units in the six months since its launch. This is the box that I proclaimed the winner in the over-the-top set-top-box shootout I wrote in July. But secretly, after writing that report, I started to fear for the box’s survival in a world where Netflix is off enabling every other device you’re thinking of buying this holiday season.

Then the recession hit. Follow my logic here: you hear that Microsoft Xbox 360 Live members can stream Netflix to their TV sets. That sounds cool enough to try, you are one of nearly 9 million Netflix subscribers aftera ll, but then you add up the additional costs — $199 for the low-end Xbox 360 Arcade plus a $7.99 a month subscription. Add that up for a year and you have $295. (Of course, the plan from Microsoft is that you already own an Xbox and this motivates you to sign up for the Xbox 360 Live Gold Membership, but just humor me.)

So you then hear that select Blu-ray players from Samsung and LG now allow for Netflix streaming. You were considering a Blu-ray player anyway, so you look into these and find they retail for $349 to $399. Then you hear that TiVo will offer Netflix, but you have to get the $299 TiVo HD at a minimum, not to mention the monthly service charges. You’re starting to feel daunted, so you go to Netflix.com and see all these options on one page so you can figure out which one is best for you.

You find the Netflix Ready Devices page, which shows you all of these options, and what do you see? Roku listed at the top, at a nice $99 price. Oh, and by the way, it’s the only one that comes with built-in wireless connectivity for those who don’t have ethernet in the living room. Especially in a recession, the Roku seems like a low-risk option.

I shared this line of logic with Tim Twerdahl, VP of Consumer Products at Roku, an ex-Netflix guy on Friday. I could practically hear the smile on his face over the phone as he agreed with my logic. Then he confirmed it: “Our sales are up dramatically in October.” And that in a recession.

Of course, the point of all the other boxes is that they do other things, not just Netflix. The Xbox does games, TiVo does DVR, the other guys do Blu-ray. When I shared this concern with Tim, he responded very confidently that I should stay tuned. What I have long been calling the Netflix/Roku box will soon shrug off the Netflix moniker by adding other premium content. This will only drive up sales on this box even more. Soon it will outsell the Roku Soundbridge home audio device that never really got past 100,000 users in four years of selling. There’s a business in this box; Roku is here to stay.